How to Control Your Singing Voice
Countless times over the years I have received requests for voice training with someone saying, “Yeah, I’d like to learn how to control my voice.” Now as broad and obvious as this statement of may be, this is actually a very important and intelligent question to ask. In fact ‘control’ is the single most asked about subject for any student of voice. But, what is the control that they seek?
Many people have different opinions regarding what they feel is the description of vocal control. Is it to stay on pitch? Is it the ability for a singer not to strain or become tired? Is it the ability to sing as high as their favorite singer with many fluttering scales? Perhaps it means that they can sing consistently night after night. Here again the answer to the question is that it’s all of these things and so much more. When we talk about controlling the voice in online singing lessons, we are ultimately saying that it would be effortless for me to do whatever I want to do vocally, without ever hurting myself, and I can do it whenever I want for as long as I want to do it. This is certainly the ultimate goal of any serious developing singer.
In order to control the voice as a whole we must learn to control many smaller parts and get those parts to work together in tandem just like a complex machine. As Dr. D. Ralph Appleman so brilliantly stated in his book The Science Of Vocal Pedagogy: “All disciplined vocal utterances in song is derived through the unification of numerous muscle complexes that are interrelated and form a huge gestalt. The performer recognizes these unified actions as a single sensation”. Although this may seem like a complicated statement, the point is actually simple. There are many areas in voice that need to be working together as one unit and that is the control that we all want. Not one thing, not two things, but all things working as one. For example, if I had a great ability to play piano with my right hand…but had a great weakness with the left hand, what good does having a strong right hand have when playing a piece of music that requires both?
It’s amazing when we think of how vastly complex a car is and all the different systems that are involved to keep it running smoothly. Many of the systems in a car seem so unrelated to each other, such as a water pump and spark plugs. What do water and sparks have in common? Yet, when they are working together it all makes sense, and as you may well know if any one of them fails, the car itself will fail.
There are in fact many things in life that require all systems to work together as one or not at all. That’s why we have the expression that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I have met many students of voice who really had their inhaling down but lacked the ability to exhale properly. I’ve heard singers who could sing so high that it would have been breathtaking if only their tone was good as well. The bottom line is that we need to control all the parts to make the voice sound its best. When we lack this control in singing it can seem as if the voice has a mind of its own. We never know for sure what we are going to get. Will I hit that note today or will my voice decide a flatter one is better? Will I crack when the high note comes in on the chorus or will it flow smoothly? These are some of the concerns we may have when singing. Certainly, all of us hope that we will have the control to make sure each of these potential problems will never exist. That is exactly what our vocal training and exercises are all about. They set boundaries that we are not supposed to break and through the effort put forth in not breaking them we develop control.
To explain this more clearly lets again use another car analogy. Suppose that instead of wanting to be a great singer I wanted instead to be a great racecar driver. In order to be great at racing I am going to need to develop a control over my race car. How would I develop control over this powerful and complicated machine? After all, it is not a part of me. How do I develop a feel for and comfort with this object in order that I can control it to the point of not even thinking of about every little move I make? Well, I would find a large empty car lot somewhere and lay down some orange cones or pylons. I would spread those cones out into a big swirly snake-like shape across the asphalt. My next move would be to simply drive myself through the serpentine as fast as I could without knocking over the cones. You see, I set up boundaries that I cannot violate and the trial and error of avoiding knocking the cones over is what gives me the control that I seek. I would also be sure to make the serpentine harder than the actual course that I would be racing on.
The same holds true for our vocalizes and online voice lessons. Except, of course, that they are not orange and they are not cones. They are note patterns that are strung together in an awkward way designed purposefully to mess us up. That’s the biggest understanding that we must have while practicing vocalizes. They are meant to make us do it wrong. The more we fight not to get thrown off, the more skill we develop. Most vocal exercises are harder than the songs that we are hoping to master. Remember that practice does not necessarily make perfect. We must practice perfectly to achieve perfection. You can practice something wrong day and night and in the end it will still be wrong. So, no cleaning the room or watching tv out of the corner of your eye while you practice your exercises. Think about what you are doing.